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Editorial: How to stop a Ukraine war before it starts

  • February 18, 2022
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

One of the most intriguing tools the United States has used to head off an invasion of Ukraine is the publication of intelligence reports about Russian intentions.


The Biden administration has provided formerly-classified intelligence to allies and media around the world, showing Russian troop formations and revealing purported “false flag” operations — an attack staged by Russian troops disguised as Ukrainian forces — that would be used to justify an intervention.


The U.S. strategy is not unprecedented, but it is risky. There is the danger of exposing sources, of damaging U.S. credibility, or of signaling that the protection of intelligence is less important than it really is. If the policy works and an invasion is deterred, it will have been worth it — even though we will never know if the exposure actually changed Russian calculations.


In recent weeks, the U.S. has released a startling amount of information about Russian plans involving Ukraine. Not only has the Biden administration published photographs that show in detail concentrations of Russian troops and equipment, but it has also released intelligence intercepts that lay out plans for a “false flag” operation and even information from Russian sources complaining about the leaks.

The U.S. campaign has multiple audiences. Its first target is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is being informed that his principal adversary knows his plans and tactics and will not be surprised. He must now wonder what other secrets might be in jeopardy. That might deter him from acting.


A second target is the Russian public. They are being given a narrative that counters the story fed to them by official state media. It is a tough sell but it could undermine support for Putin.


A third audience is allied and partner governments that might harbor doubts about Russian plans and intentions. The intelligence will help shore up support for efforts to check Putin.


The fourth audience is the U.S. public. It needs to know what is going on in Ukraine and be prepared for any consequences. There are divisions in the U.S. about the wisdom of defending Ukraine, the product of political polarization and active disinformation campaigns, and the Biden administration must do more to build support for its effort to deter Putin.


Shining a light on such plans is not unprecedented. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson famously exposed the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, winning a seminal propaganda battle at the height of the Cold War. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to strike a similar blow in 2003 when he presented to the U.N. the U.S. evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was trying to build weapons of mass destruction; that effort failed when the intelligence was exposed as shoddy and poorly vetted.


Reporters who remember Powell’s disgrace have raised questions about the recent campaign, and the response has been tetchy. The Biden administration has not released proof of its claims, and instead complained about the media’s readiness to doubt its credibility, and that of allied governments, and “find solace” in Moscow’s denials. Ironically, today’s U.S. government spokespersons challenged similar revelations during the Trump administration. But as Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained at the United Nations this week, the U.S. is releasing its information “not to start a war but to prevent one.”


Still, skepticism is understandable. There has been the episodic politicization of intelligence. In addition to the Iraq case, the Trump administration several times released information that bolstered its hand in domestic political disputes. The selective declassification of intelligence for political ends, rather than national security, is a dangerous habit to indulge in. Not only does it undermine a government’s credibility but it encourages others to also play fast and loose when they have access to restricted information.


The legal status of such disclosures is very different — the executive can declassify information as it sees fit, assuming procedures are followed — but leakers are less inclined to focus on the bigger picture and more on winning the rhetorical fight. This is a vitally important lesson for Japan as it works to create new procedures to handle classified information.


There is also the danger that release could jeopardize sources. There are open-source satellite photos, for example, that reinforce U.S. claims. But more is needed to answer critical questions of intent. Truly insightful intelligence comes from unique assets that should be protected at all costs. That is why the U.S. has not released the actual proof of its assertions. The distinctiveness of the information means, however, that the source might be identified without hard proof — although there is also a chance that publication could create doubts within Moscow about spies and loyalties.


In this case, publication makes sense, however. If the intelligence is accurate, then exposure undermines Russian plans to provide a casus belli. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, there was little understanding of the role played by surreptitious operators on the ground — the “little green men” who pressed for separation from Ukraine and reunification with Russia, ostensibly independent actors who were in reality Russian soldiers stripped of insignia.


The use of such tactics, which includes disinformation campaigns, is known as “gray zone warfare,” so called because it falls short of requiring a traditional military response. These tricks have a long history and have engendered debates among governments about how to respond. Those discussions have assumed new urgency as adversaries become more adept at these new forms of warfare.


For some, the passing of the Feb. 16 deadline without an invasion will show the U.S. was wrong, its intelligence unfounded and all was just an attempt to slander Russia, as Moscow’s spokesmen have insisted. For others, Russian inaction is proof that the warnings worked and Putin was deterred. Speaking at the U.N., Blinken said he would be happy to be proven wrong. Uncertainty and even some embarrassment seems like a reasonable price for peace.


The Japan Times Editorial Board

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